I was born in a tiny village tucked away in the rural interior of North India, a region drowning in illiteracy, poverty, and social injustice. The life of the villagers was hard. Using primitive tools, they plowed their land, raised their cattle, wove their clothes, built their huts, and followed their family trades. Calamities were a normal part of life. Famine, flood, drought, and epidemics of cholera, malaria, and smallpox visited them frequently. Yet they were people of high spirit, resilient and optimistic. Infused with faith in Providence and immersed in a vibrant web of relationships with their families, their village, and the natural world, they accepted their losses as part of life. As part of their morning ablutions, they walked a kilometer or two in the predawn twilight, filling their lungs with fresh air and their ears with birdsong. They bathed, brushed their teeth, cleaned their cowsheds, and swept their yards with the same attitude of devotion with which they cleaned their altars, offered water to the rising sun, and poured oblations into the fire. All of these actions were an acknowledgement of their connection with the Divine, the source of nurturance. Before taking their first sip of water in the morning, they watered their plants, such as the tulsi (holy basil) and the pipal tree, which they identified with an aspect of Divinity. As a token of gratitude, they offered a bite of their own food to the crows, dogs, or other animals before eating anything themselves. Because they knew that everything had a higher purpose and meaning, they viewed both misfortune and windfalls as part of the rhythm of life. When visited by disaster, they bounced back, investing themselves with renewed vigor in the celebration of life. Observing this as a young man, I came to believe that joy is an innate virtue of the spirit. To live a joyful life is the greatest accomplishment, and failure to live joyfully is the greatest loss.
When I first came to the United States in the early 1980s, sensory overload from the dazzling lights made me freeze in shock as I walked into Kennedy Airport. Other stunning experiences quickly followed: four-lane highways, the Lincoln Tunnel, the New York skyline, and people three times the size of my Indian body. Everything was big, new, and plentiful. I was overwhelmed by the glamour and grandeur of this mighty nation. I marveled at all I saw and thanked God for bringing me to this land of limitless possibility.
I had not yet recovered from the shock of this dazzling new world when my master, Swami Rama, appointed me spiritual director of the Himalayan Institute. As I assumed this unfamiliar role, I made a discovery that shocked me even more: many people in this land of plenty were unhappy. They came to me seeking advice on spiritual matters, and often their concerns had a central theme: “I am not happy with myself,” they would say. “I’m confused.” “I’m worried.” At first I wondered what these complaints had to do with spirituality, but as I reflected more deeply, I realized they were searching for an underlying sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. They saw themselves, not as part of a boundless continuum, but as individuals competing for a measure of security in a troubled world. Most of them were competent and confident in their professional lives. They had all the trappings of comfort—houses, cars, plenty of food and clothing—but they were full of fear and self-doubt and haunted by an underlying feeling of emptiness. With no meaningful sense of connection with the web of life, they had been looking to the material world for happiness and security. And when fulfillment eluded them, they came to the Himalayan Institute to study yoga, looking to the wisdom of the East for answers.
They had all the trappings of comfort—houses, cars, plenty of food and clothing—but they were full of fear and self-doubt and haunted by an underlying feeling of emptiness.
East Moves West
While I was adapting to my new role, the world I had left behind in the East was busily adopting the Western model of living: work hard, accumulate possessions while your faith in a higher reality and your sense of connection with the web of life fades away. For centuries, people in the East had focused on their spiritual pursuits, ignoring the reality of the physical world, and thus they suffered from material poverty. The West had gone full force in the other direction, conquering the physical world, in the process accumulating material riches while losing their nurturing sense of connection with the spiritual realm. Now in the latter half of the 20th century, people from both hemispheres were realizing they had shut themselves off from half of reality. The result? One was running after what the other was running from.
Over thirty-five years have passed since I left my homeland. Calamities—famine, cholera, malaria, and plague—visit less frequently. The basic standard of living has risen. Markets are flooded with amenities as well as necessities, and most people have better access to education. And yet discontent stalks the land. Both rich and poor have become hungrier—the rich for material wealth and glamour, and the poor for food, fresh water, and adequate shelter (as well as for modern amenities that are well beyond their reach).
What has happened to the people of my motherland? Who took away their faith in themselves and in divine Providence? How did they lose their contentment and optimism? The answer is clear: they no longer have a sustaining relationship with the vibrant web of life. They are increasingly cut off from their extended families, from their communities, and from the natural world. The sense of sanctity that once pervaded almost every aspect of daily existence has vanished. Life and everything connected with it is perceived as an object to be possessed and consumed. Living a simple life is equated with backwardness. If you are not fighting for your share of rush and noise in the crowd and commotion of India’s cities, you are considered a person of the past century. A pervasive sense of discontent hovers over people who once believed everything in life has purpose and meaning, who viewed both misfortune and windfalls as part of life’s natural rhythm. Worst of all, they have lost their sense of joy.
Reflecting on this loss, I hear the voice of my spiritual master, Swami Rama: “To be born as a human is the greatest gift, and to die without experiencing the fullness of life is the greatest loss.” People in both the East and the West are hungry for the fullness of life, yet it eludes them. Again Swamiji’s words ring in my mind: “Only after knowing ourselves at every level can we aspire to reclaim life in its fullness. And it is only after we have experienced life in its fullness that lasting joy is ours.”
Again Swamiji’s words ring in my mind: “Only after knowing ourselves at every level can we aspire to reclaim life in its fullness. And it is only after we have experienced life in its fullness that lasting joy is ours.”
Most of us seek fulfillment in a fragmented way. Some of us are trying to achieve it through material possessions and others by renouncing possessions. Some seek fulfillment in the form of physical comforts and pleasure and others by embracing asceticism. For the most part there is a huge divide between people’s material and spiritual pursuits, a divide that has penetrated every aspect of our worldview and shaped our philosophy of life. As a result, we have lost our sensitivity to the connection between our body and mind, between our mind and soul, and between who we are as individuals and who we are as members of society. Success in one aspect of life, therefore, fails to infuse other areas with a sense of satisfaction. We can have vibrant, healthy bodies and yet be emotionally weak; we can be prosperous and yet suffer from internal emptiness. Experiencing the fullness of life depends on knowing ourselves at every level and building bridges among these different layers of our own being. As individuals, we are made of body, breath, mind, and soul, and we must gain a direct experience of the interconnected nature of these different levels of our being. We have to learn the art of providing nurturance to all these aspects of ourselves, for only then can we gain true health and reclaim the lasting joy that is our birthright.
In practice, it all begins with the process of integration—integration of all aspects of our being and integration of the reality within and without. This process, in turn, begins with transforming ourselves. Only after we have collected the missing pieces of our private world and arranged them in a harmonious unity will our emptiness give way to a sense of deep, lasting fulfillment. This path of integration is what the ancient masters called yoga, the path of union.
Today’s popular yoga is just a small part of the path of integration. This path involves more than asana. It involves more than breathing exercises and more than the array of techniques that have flooded the market. Most of these are beneficial. Asana is good; it will bring flexibility to strengthen your nervous system. Ayurveda is good; it will help you live a balanced life. Pancha karma is good; it will detoxify your organs and limbs. Organic food will nurture your body. Chanting will help you transform your emotions. Rituals will infuse the space around you with a sense of sanctity. The practice of surrender will soften your ego. But from the standpoint of the overarching principle of total integration, these are simply à la carte services.
“Yoga” is a broad term referring to a philosophy of life which holds that everyone and everything is interrelated. All seemingly distinct limbs and organs, for example, are interconnected. They function in full coordination with each other and receive their nurturance and guidance from one common pool of intelligence. Discord among them is the source of disease, and maintenance of their harmonious relationship is the foundation for good health. The same is true of all other aspects of creation. They may appear to be distinct and separate from each other, but they are all interconnected. The cloud of smog emerging from the industrial centers of South China alters the seasons in the northern Himalayas, and this, in turn, alters the lives of millions living in the plains of India. The principle of integration, of union, and the practices leading to a direct experience of the interrelated nature of all aspects of life, is what the great masters of the East called yoga. Asana, pranayama, relaxation techniques, meditation, dietary principles, codes of ethical conduct, spirituality, and mysticism are the limbs and organs of the body of yoga. And when we lose sight of the core principle of integration, these different aspects of yoga will not yield the intended result—to infuse our life with balance and harmony.
A Quest Still Unfulfilled
Despite the fact that today’s popular yoga focuses on asana, the people practicing it are sincerely searching for meaning and purpose in their lives. They are loving and kind. The principles of integration, balance, and harmony are not foreign to them, and these principles are no longer foreign to mainstream society. Many people are trying their best to apply the principles of holistic health—exercise, relaxation, meditation, and a whole foods diet—to live a healthier and happier life.
As a society, however, we don’t seem to have made much progress. Our health complaints—both physical and mental—have become more serious. The incidence of type 2 diabetes has increased 80 percent in the past decade—21 million Americans already have it; an additional 41 million are pre-diabetic. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 57 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with some form of mental disorder. The ability to sit still and maintain a calm, tranquil mind is diminishing. Today we need constant stimulation to ward off boredom and loneliness. These problems may be more prevalent among those who have little interest in a healthy lifestyle, but are no means confined to them. And this raises an inescapable question: What is wrong with our quest? Where and why is this principle of balance, harmony, and integration failing us? Why is our sincere interest in lasting health and happiness bearing so little fruit?
The answer lies in the lopsided nature of our quest. We are seeking personal health, personal wealth, personal peace, personal happiness—everything personal. In the quest to achieve lasting peace, we are still clinging to the idea of “me” and “mine.” The emphasis is on my life, my health, my peace, my enlightenment, and my joy. This focus on “my, me, mine” shuts us off from a vision of true wholeness. Our world shrinks to the individual realm of body, senses, mind, and all the pleasures, pains, failures, and achievements that go with it. When we attempt to follow the principle of integration, we apply it only within the confines of our separate little world. But the truth is, there is no such thing as a separate little world. We are all inextricably entwined in the web of life. In the grand scheme of creation our personal health and happiness, our peace, and our prosperity are inevitably connected to, and ultimately dependent on, the health, happiness, peace, and prosperity of others. Our personal achievements cannot be sustained in isolation. It is beyond our capacity to protect our personal world from the good and bad, the joy and sorrow, that surrounds it. So in light of this reality, let us take a look at the kind of world we are living in today and see what effect it has on us at an individual level.
Despite the tremendous advances in the fields of science and technology, and despite the unprecedented level of industrial output worldwide, most of the human race lives in poverty. Millions struggle just to remain alive. They lack the bare necessities: food, clean water, clothes, shelter, and even the most rudimentary health services. One and a half billion people in China and India alone are living below the poverty level. Hundreds of millions of migrant workers in these two countries float between the towns and cities in a futile attempt to find work. Worldwide, more than 5 million children around the world die of malnutrition every year; 40 million HIV/AIDS patients are left to a slow death.
The illusion that we are separate from one another prevents us from seeing how the sorrow oozing from the hearts of millions of destitute people is seeping into our own bones. Living in the confines of our private world we do not see a connection between ourselves and hungry people in a distant land. Our attachment to “my, me, and mine” and our desire to find lasting happiness within our own little world prevents us from seeing that the wall separating us from others is pure illusion.
All living beings share one life force and one breath. The air we exhale contains the subtle properties of every cell in our bodies as well as the subtle properties of our minds. As we exhale, we deposit everything that is in us into the earth’s atmosphere, the common pool from which we draw our life force. It nourishes and sustains us. Like mini-factories, billions of hearts are pouring clouds of pain and agony, fear and insecurity, anger and violence into this atmosphere, and these clouds circle the globe, influencing the minds and hearts of everyone. No matter how hard we work to keep our private little world safe, the quality of the bigger world exerts its influence. When so much sorrow is being poured into the atmosphere, how can we remain unaffected? All of us—rich and poor, Easterners and Westerners, men and women, meditators and non-meditators—are filling our minds and hearts with the subtle energy of sorrow and pain, and the result is that even the most sincere seekers are disturbed by some degree of inner restlessness.
Yamas: Five Restraints
Ahimsa - Non-harming
Satya - Truthfulness
Asteya - Non-stealing
Brahmacharya - Moderation of senses
Aparigraha - Non-possessiveness
Niyamas: Five Observances
Shaucha - Purity
Santosha - Contentment
Tapas - Self-discipline
Svadhyaya - Self-study
Ishvara pranidhana - Self-surrender
A Ladder to Lasting Joy
The practice of yoga as described in authentic texts helps us reclaim lasting joy. It is not as hard as it appears. All it requires is that we know ourselves at every level. The eight rungs of yoga—yamas (five restraints), niyamas (five observances), asana, pranayama, pratyahara (a purposeful turning away of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (self-realization)—enable us to work with ourselves at the level of body, breath, senses, mind, ego, intellect, and our vast unconscious mind, which is the repository of the subtle impressions of our past. The first two rungs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas, breathe life into our practice and create a context in which the practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation begins to have a far-reaching effect. Asana turns into yoga, for it enables us to experience the relationship between body, mind, and soul. Similarly, meditation no longer remains confined to the domain of the mind, for it enables us to experience the body as the soul’s vehicle for experiencing its intrinsic joy. The eight rungs of yoga furnish the ground for helping us become conscientious members of a civil society. They create bridges between the various aspects of ourselves, so that we may live a life of balance and harmony; they demolish the wall of illusion that separates us from others, and infuse our thought, speech, and action with a sense of divinity and reverence.
From a higher perspective, however, this eightfold path of yoga takes us only part of the way on our journey to happiness. It helps us restore balance to our body, breath, and mind. It makes the body serve the purposes of the mind, and the mind serve the purpose of the soul. This completes the course of self-enlightenment—a great accomplishment in its own right. But to attain lasting joy we have to take our personal enlightenment to the next level
This final stage of our journey begins with infusing the external world with our own inner wealth of peace and happiness. We do this by investing our personal achievement in the general welfare of all living beings. All the world’s great traditions talk of inner purification, and every form of inner purification involves an active practice of love and compassion, giving and sharing. The subtle effects engendered by an active engagement with these virtues is called dharma megha samadhi (samadhi made of the cloud of virtues).
At first, this cloud of virtues rains within the domain of our own minds and hearts, washing away our subtle impurities: anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, selfishness, cruelty, and the desire for vengeance. Thus, as individual practitioners, we are the first recipients of our practice of love and compassion. Spiritual attributes—such as kindness, forgiveness, tolerance, and sensitivity to the pain of others—begin to blossom in us spontaneously. We become mini-factories in our own right, pouring clouds of forgiveness, tolerance, and generosity into the atmosphere. The climate of anger, hatred, and fear gives way to one of forgiveness, love, and trust.
In this new climate we can, without much effort, cultivate a society steeped in reverence for the web of life. People born and raised in such a society will have a natural inclination to recognize their innate connections with all living beings. This recognition is the consummate human achievement—the ground for lasting joy.